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Swan Upping

Monday July 17 - Friday July 21, 2017

The swans on the River Thames are called Mute Swans.  They are not actually mute, but can honk and hiss with abandon!  In the twelfth century, swans were considered a delicacy for banquets and feasts.  The King claimed ownership of the Mute Swans, so he would have an ample supply for his feasts. In those days, a swan census was taken to ensure availability.  The swan's royal status was formalized in the "Act of Swans" in 1482, setting out legislation providing for ownership and marking of the swans.

The Crown granted some swans (identified with double marks on the beaks) to the Vintners Company in 1473, and others (identified with single marks on the beaks) to the Dyers Company in 1483.  All unmarked swans belonged to the Crown, but the Queen only actually claims the swans in certain stretches of the river Thames and some tributaries.

Since the twelfth century, Swan Upping (the counting of the swans) has occurred every year during the third week of July, because then the cygnets are considered old enough to be handled. Swans start to breed when they are 3 - 4 years old, and usually pair for life.

Swan Upping is done by the Queen's Master of the Swans (in scarlet uniform,) with Swan Uppers from the Vintners' and Dyers' Livery Companies, in six traditional rowing skiffs, flying flags and pennants. Their five day journey starts at Sunbury-on-Thames and end at Abingdon.  On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute "Her Majesty the Queen, Seigneur of the Swans."  The boats are usually towed for much of the journey, to ensure that the Upping is completed in five days.

The actual "Upping" is the taking of the birds out of the water. When a family of swans is spotted, the men shout out "All Up." Then the rowing boats are manoeuvered so that the swans are trapped against the riverbank.  The swans and cygnets are carefully lifted out of the water, markings checked, weighed, measured and checked for health.  The cygnets are ringed with individual ID numbers.  The Master of the Swans presents a report, which these days is more about conservation than availability in the kitchen! The reports have many uses, for example, in the 1980s the swan numbers dwindled severely, due to lead poisoning from fishing weights.  These were banned, and numbers built up from 400 to over 1,200.  

Following the Swan Uppers must be one of the most unusual ways to spend some vacation time.  The fleed traditionally stops for lunch on the first Monday at the Swan Hotel in Staines. This is a great place to start. You can then follow the fleet on foot along the Thames path (if you are really fit) or drive and look for road access to the river. It gets a bit tricky, requiring cooperative swans, but certainly presents a challenge.

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